Spoilers for John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

In this novel, Percy Alleline has become the director of “the Circus”, a fictional British intelligence service. Alleline and the department heads of the Circus (Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhase, and Roy Bland) are running a group of Russian agents, codenamed “Source Merlin”, who communicate by passing their secrets to Aleksey Polyakov, supposedly a cultural attaché at the Soviet Union’s embassy in London. Polyakov passes the secrets to Esterhase at meetings in a house in Camden owned by Alleline:

The Treasury had sanctioned sixty thousand pounds for the freehold and another ten for furniture and fittings. To cut costs, it wanted its own lawyers to handle the conveyance. Alleline refused to reveal the address. For the same reason there was an argument about who should keep the deeds. This time the Treasury put its foot down and its lawyers drew up instruments to get the house back from Alleline should he die or go bankrupt.

Polyakov is actually a spy, and his cover story for the meetings is that Esterhase is his agent in the Circus, and accordingly the Circus carefully selects harmless low-level information (“chickenfeed”) for Esterhase to pass to Polyakov for the latter to put in his reports to “Moscow Centre”:

‘What I’m asking you is very simple,’ Smiley insisted. ‘Notionally, who is Polyakov’s agent inside the Circus? Good heavens, Toby, don’t be obtuse. If Polyakov’s cover for meeting you people is that he is spying on the Circus, then he must have a Circus spy, mustn’t he? So who is he? He can’t come back to the Embassy after a meeting with you people, loaded with reels of Circus chickenfeed, and say, “I got this from the boys.” There has to be a story, and a good one at that: a whole history of courtship, recruitment, clandestine meetings, money and motive. Doesn’t there? Heavens, this isn’t just Polyakov’s cover story: it’s his lifeline. It’s got to be thorough. It’s got to be convincing; I’d say it was a very big issue in the game. So who is he?’ Smiley enquired pleasantly. ‘You? Toby Esterhase masquerades as a Circus traitor in order to keep Polyakov in business? My hat, Toby, that’s worth a whole handful of medals.’

My question is this. In the Circus’ view, what is Polyakov’s cover story, in his reports to Moscow Centre, for the meetings with Esterhase taking place at a house owned by the director of the Circus? I can see five possibilities, none completely satisfactory:

  1. The Circus has not considered this problem.

  2. The Circus believes that Polyakov says in his reports that he meets Esterhase somewhere else. (The problem with this is that Moscow Centre might tail him one day and discover that he has been lying.)

  3. The Circus believes that Polyakov tells the truth about the location of the meetings but lies about the nature of the house. (The problem with this is that Moscow Centre might discover that Alleline owned the freehold. The novel is set in the 1970s, well before the Land Registration Act 2002 made it compulsory to register ownership upon purchase, but the seller and both sets of conveyancing solicitors would have known, and it seems risky to depend on their silence for such a delicate operation.)

  4. The Circus believes that Polyakov tells the truth about the house but says that Esterhase, as a senior member of the Circus, is able to suppress evidence that the meetings took place there. (The problem with this is that the safe house has a housekeeper, Millie McCraig, and there would need to be a convincing story explaining why her silence could be relied on.)

  5. The Circus believes that Polyakov tells the truth about the house but says that Esterhase has a cover story for the meetings, namely that Polyakov is his agent. (There are several problems with this. One, Polyakov would need to be passing “chickenfeed” to Esterhase, in addition to the “Source Merlin” material, to explain how Esterhase is able to make his cover story stick, and there is no hint of this in the novel. Two, Esterhase’s cover story wouldn’t be convincing to the Circus as it wouldn’t explain how Polyakov was able to secretly visit the house, as he points out himself: “But [Polyakov]’s got to pretend to his own people that he’s spying on us. How else does he get away with it? How does he walk in and out of that house all day, no gorillas, no babysitters, everything so easy?” Three, this scenario is too close to the truth.)

1 Answer 1


TL;DR: Because of the tight secrecy surrounding Operation Witchcraft, there was no such thing as the “Circus view”, only the individual views of the four Circus heads, the “magic circle” as George Smiley calls them. And in each case there could plausibly have been a reason why the flaw in Polyakov’s cover story did not concern them.

Cover story

The Circus provides the safe house with a cover story for inquisitive members of the general public:

Lock Gardens, which presumably drew its name from the Camden and Hampstead Road Locks nearby, was a terrace of four flat-fronted nineteenth-century houses […] Some of the houses had been turned into one-roomed flats, and had ten door bells laid out like a typewriter. Some were got up grandly and had only one. Number five had two: one for Millie McCraig and one for her lodger Mr Jefferson. Mrs McCraig was churchy and collected for everything, which was incidentally an excellent way of keeping an eye on the locals, though that was scarcely how they viewed her zeal. Jefferson, her lodger, was known vaguely to be foreign and in oil and away a lot. Lock Gardens was his pied-à-terre. The neighbours, when they bothered to notice him, found him shy and respectable.

(McCraig is a Circus employee and ‘Jefferson’ is Polyakov.) It seems likely that the same cover story is intended for use by Polyakov. (This corresponds to option 3 in the question.) This story would be suitable, if not for the fact that Alleline owns the freehold.

Missing the flaw

So why did the members of the “magic circle” miss the flaw in Polyakov’s cover story?

Bill Haydon of course was not concerned by the flaw because he was the mole ‘Gerald’.

Percy Alleline was carefully chosen by Haydon as the figurehead for Operation Witchcraft precisely because he is a committee man, someone who is not concerned with operational details. Smiley imagined the scene like so:

‘So this, in my thesis, is what Gerald says to Percy next. “We—that is, myself and those like-minded souls who are associated with this project—would like you to act as our father-figure, Percy. We’re not political men, we’re operators. We don’t understand the Whitehall jungle. But you do. You handle the committees, we’ll handle Merlin. If you act as our cut-out, and protect us from the rot that’s set in, which means in effect limiting knowledge of the operation to the absolute minimum, we’ll supply the goods.”’

All we learn about Alleline’s operational abilities is that he had a “Middle East adventure, which went so wrong and nearly cost Percy his career.” So Haydon could be confident that Alleline would leave the details of the operation to him. Haydon was the Circus’ Russian expert and supposedly recruited Source Merlin in the first place, so he was the natural person for the job.

Roy Bland and Toby Esterhase may well not have known who owned the freehold of the safe house, and so were not in a position to spot the flaw. The principle of need-to-know may have meant that the ownership was a secret shared between Haydon, Alleline and the Treasury. We never learn much about Bland, but we do get given the impression that Esterhase was not admitted to all the details of the operation:

‘And who’s Merlin?’

Esterhase shook his head.

‘But at least you’ve heard he’s based in Moscow,’ Smiley said. ‘And a member of the Soviet Intelligence establishment, whatever else he isn’t?’

‘That much they tell me,’ Esterhase agreed.

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